How Nils Frahm Embraced Recklessness on New Album 'All Melody'
The showroom of Oswald Mill Audio, housed inside a warehouse-like building in Dumbo, Brooklyn, is a temple of sound. The ceilings stretch 14-feet high; custom-built speakers, carved handsomely from wood, are arrayed imposingly. They look like butterflies or 12-sided, inverted badminton birdies. Unlike most speakers, which sit flat and indifferent, these have depth and potential energy -- they reach out to you.
It was there in October 2017 that Nils Frahm played his new album All Melody for a group of people for the first time. Most of Frahm's recorded music is hushed and pretty, which means that in the streaming era, his tunes have been conscripted for service by Spotify playlists like "Peaceful Piano" (3.44 million followers) and "The Most Beautiful Songs in the World" (1.34 million). But at the Oswald showroom, a strange thing happened: Near the beginning of All Melody, what unfurled from the speakers, slowly and majestically, was a club-friendly bassline. The space and the quality of the sound signaled gravity and importance. The kick drum suggesting something more irreverent: movement.
Frahm's music is usually deemed experimental or modern classical or adjacent to jazz, due to his interest in the possibilities of improvisation; All Melody is perhaps his most approachable record, certainly his grooviest. But Frahm doesn't see it that way. "I think it's not my most accessible album, unfortunately," he says. "This record is too all over the place -- it's a little bit of a tougher listening experience than, for example, a solo piano record that you can just put on. Even if it's more avant garde, it can just be in the background. All Melody attacks you sometimes. It wants to be listened to."
Frahm spoke the day after the listening party while sitting on the roof of his Air B&B in Bushwick, Brooklyn and shielding his eyes against the sun. He rolled a cigarette before the interview, but didn't smoke it until the conversation was finished; he politely rephrased questions that came out badly. He has a knack for the casual manifesto -- "Good feedback is not really good if you want to achieve something amazing"; "We are the artists; we change the world, not the other way around."
And he also likes to argue both sides of an issue out loud, trying to determine why young musicians might "want to be fucking famous, and it doesn't matter [to them] how or why," even if he already knows where he stands. "Other people think they need to be a double cheeseburger," Frahm says. "I crawled up like granola or muesli. I'm so happy that it took so long. This is only achieved because when you trace my career back, there's nothing hectic in it. It was always, that's the best I can do, and if people don't like it, I'll try again -- and again and again. Nothing ever depended on one song or one record."
Frahm has been releasing albums regularly for over a decade, and much of his solo work revolves around piano pieces. All Melody is far more expansive: Recorded at his newly built studio in Berlin with help from other musicians, you'll hear strings, horns, kick drums and an exquisite choir. "This album is just carte blanche for me," Frahm says. "I chased the musical dreams and sound ideas I always had."
The album was a massive work of editing. "I recorded so much music; in the end, I calculated I took 1 megabyte out of every 2000 megabytes," Frahm says. "It became obvious that I'm quite good at throwing things away." Once he had roughly 60 "sketches," Robert Raths, founder of the label Erased Tapes (which has been releasing Frahm's work since 2009), helped him decide what to keep. "We embraced the challenge of making a hyper-dynamic record," Raths says. "I wanted to see the real Nils -- my friend who would go to a techno party, go crazy, then come home late at night, sit down and play some harmonium swells, wake up the next day, do the laundry, and think of a beautiful melody for the piano. I wanted all of that."
He got it. All Melody works with manic patience, moving between the club, the church, and a dimly lit apartment containing a dingy old piano. There are moments of genuine surprise, often involving the choir, which disappears for long stretches before returning to softly bowl you over. There are also long, predictable, entrancing electronic crescendos that are nearly overwhelming. (At the listening party, Frahm inserted a break between the first and second halves of the album to allow for brief recovery.) Raths compares All Melody to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. "[Those musicians] were exploring sound," he explains. "There was something they were missing, and they couldn't find it anywhere, so they did it themselves."
Little else sounds like All Melody, and Frahm views the record as "a testimonial." "It's ok to not join the madness, whatever the madness is," he asserts. "Too many people are afraid to not be part of something. I've never really shared that fear. You need to be reckless enough to be like, even if it doesn't work, I want to do something else."
But in an increasingly centralized music business dominated by a small number of labels in conjunction with a few streaming services, there is a price to aesthetic recklessness. "Everything goes through an MP3 limiter; people get Spotify mastering rules," Frahm says. "Engineers warned me about the volume of my record, that it would be too low, [I need to] limit it more."
This is not a concession that Frahm was willing to make. "This is my favorite thing in the world: I'm like, 'I won't do it,' and I smile at them," he continues. "This is really my talent: Just do whatever I want, and get away with it."